Every game has a moment where it clicks and we see what makes it special — or bad — and for Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs 2, that moment came almost instantly when starting the game. After Marcus meets up with fellow DedSec pals Sitara, Wrench, Horatio, and Josh, the five of them go to the beach and just start drinking and hanging out, talking about their plans to spread their reach. It’s a small moment, to be sure, but this cutscene is representative of what makes this game so starkly different from its predecessor. It cares about its characters, and the characters care about the world they live in, which makes for a much brighter game.
One area where the original Watch Dogs was lacking was its weak protagonist, Aiden Pearce. There just wasn’t a lot to him. He brought most of his problems onto himself, and he just made the whole game a rather dour affair. His supporting cast were mostly comprised of either sad sacks or a bunch of jerks that didn’t make themselves any more interesting than our grim lead. T-Bone and Clara did what they could, but Pearce brought the whole affair down. As such, the narrative they constructed around him was bleak, bordering on nihilistic, and for all its talk about how Aiden was a “vigilante,” he doesn’t really do much to change things for anyone but himself. He’s not invested in anything else and his usage of Chicago’s cTOS basically boils down to “screw you, got mine.” That selfishness is pretty much gone in the sequel, replaced by characters with good intentions and who care about the city that they live in.
Most open world games don’t always go out of their way to make the city you’re in feel fully alive, and that held true in the original Watch Dogs. You can’t really interact with the world in any way beyond what the game tells you to. Watch Dogs 2 is much more reliant on the city than its predecessor. Marcus can gain missions by eavesdropping on people talking in the park, or by just walking up to folks and speaking to them. Several of the opening side missions begin with you walking up to someone and learning that they’ve been wronged in some way and going to right that for them, whether it’s the unsubtle but hilarious mission where you ruin the life of a Martin Shkreli “Pharma Bro” stand-in, or providing reparations to health insurance employees that were fired simply for looking up “DedSec.” It comes as no surprise that they would help those fired employees, because they would almost consider it as looking after “one of their own.”
These guys are all young adults who like to have fun and look out for each other, so some missions are based off acts of pure pettiness. An early mission has you head back to your HQ to just to view the trailer for highly anticipated — and sadly fake– movie that later has you steal the car being used for the film and painting it with flashy DedSec art simply because of how bad the trailer made hackers look. Even with that childish act in consideration — you end up destroying the car by driving it through a billboard for the film — there’s some amount of goodhearted nature to it because they view it as damaging to their brand and what they’re trying to accomplish in San Francisco. They want to show the people of San Francisco how the Blume corporation is screwing them over, and that can’t be done if there’s a film coming out that paints them as a complete joke.
It’s through this approach that the game turns its protagonists into hipster Robin Hoods. Even beyond just disguising civilians as mission markers, the game lets you go up to people in the comic book shop above your hacker HQ and talk to them. It’s a great way to flesh out Marcus’ character, however brief it is, and helps the city feel like there’s actual people living there. Plus, you can actually pet dogs, something that feels almost hard to imagine Aiden doing. It’s a little touch, but it’s the right touch, one that just becomes a natural thing to do because in real life, you’d likely do it yourself. The best comparison to give is that if Aiden is Batman, then Marcus is Nightwing; he has the same cause, but is much more trusting and emotionally stable, more willing to accept help from others. Aiden may have been intended to be more of an anti-hero, to be fair, but it didn’t come across well, so it made complete sense for Watch Dogs 2 to jettison away with him and focus on Marcus and his friends.
Overall, Watch Dogs 2 is a typical revenge story, but what it makes it novel is how the game uses current tech and millennial culture to spice things up, and by viewing things through the lens of millennials — Marcus’ age is listed as 24, and it’s easy to imagine that Josh, Wrench, and Sitara are all roughly around that age as well — the game gets injected with a healthy dose of optimism. These kids aren’t jaded about the world and think that they can change things, and even though it’s about as subtle as a brick to the face, I gotta give credit to Ubisoft for trying.
And let’s be real here: Ubisoft is trying with Watch Dogs 2. At times, it feels like it was made from pulling out chunks of Tumblr and Twitter and forming them into a game, from its multiethnic cast and inclusion of an autistic character to the overly stylized art that Sitara makes that could give Suicide Squad a run for its money in terms of sheer obnoxiousness. None of those things are bad, to be certain — in fact, they’re incredibly welcome — but some will view it at first glance as having diversity for diversity’s sake. You unlock more missions by gaining more “followers,” which should feel incredibly cringey but just comes across more as goofy once it’s been established. The writing is so on the nose and definitely gets preachy moments, but the way it views millennials here isn’t in the typical view of “ha ha, look at these oversensitive crybabies.” The viewpoint from these characters is so sincere and earnest and the dynamic between them all so well-defined that it becomes difficult to not get caught up in things, whether it’s stopping what you’re doing to watch that dumb movie trailer with your emoji goggles-wearing friend, or Josh slowly getting a cornhole joke that makes it fun to laugh with him instead of at him.
The best comparison I could give for Watch Dogs 2 is that it’s the formula of Furious 6 injected into an episode of Mr. Robot. The game has stuff to say, but it’s more concerned with showing you rather than just straight up telling. But the instead of putting a “how is no one talking about this?!” point at the end of their statements, the game just goes “yeah, this is happening, and we’re gonna make you think you can change it.” Still preachy, but it comes with a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder. This game runs on a rather dumb logic, but it’s the right kind of dumb that leaves you smiling when you’re done, and given the past few weeks, I’ll take it.